BATON ROUGE, La. — If LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada really only revealed 10 percent of his offense Saturday, LSU’s opponents are going to have a lot to prepare for this season.
There’s been a lot of criticism of Canada’s game plan in LSU’s 27-0 victory over BYU Saturday. Some of it is founded. LSU ran the ball 57 times compared to 18 pass plays, relying on brute force and superior talent more than the refined, nuanced approach many fans expected to see from a well-respected offensive mind like Canada.
But if you review the tape, there was more nuance to Canada’s master plan than the stat sheet shows. Sure, LSU ran the ball a lot. Fifty-seven is the largest number of carries LSU has had in a game since Nov. 27, 2014, against Texas A&M. But Canada’s 57 weren’t the block-everyone-and-run-straight-ahead sort of plays that defined the Les Miles-Cam Cameron era in Baton Rouge.
There was a deeper level to the run game, one that both helped LSU to thrive in the moment and might’ve set up the Tigers to succeed different ways later in the season.
Understanding the approach
Let’s look at two still shots of LSU’s offense, both of which were taken before LSU’s first snap of the game.
We knew coming into the game that Canada would use shifts and motions to keep the BYU defense off balance. But to come out on the first play and shift eight players is something else. Other than center Will Clapp, wide receiver D.J. Chark and quarterback Danny Etling, every player on the LSU offensive line shifted.
The call ended up being a speed sweep to running back Derrius Guice, who had motioned from his natural spot as tailback to lining up as a wingback. Guice broke the play for 7 yards following behind H-back J.D. Moore as a lead blocker and thanks to a successful seal block from tight end Foster Moreau on BYU stud Sione Takitaki.
But there’s an undercover brilliance to this play, a play Canada and LSU went back to numerous times. Because it isn’t just a straightforward sweep. In fact, it’s anything but.
A new kind of read option
Speaking to players after the game, the most revealing tidbit came from running back Darrel Williams, who motioned from slot receiver to tailback on that first play. Williams said that first play had been scripted all week, so he knew he’d have to motion. But he also said there was a chance he would’ve gotten the ball, because that play is technically an option.
Which, if you look closer at it, makes sense. Let’s look at the play in progress later in the game with LSU driving.
This time, Williams is lined up as the wingback and Guice is at tailback. (LSU also traded Chark at wide receiver for an extra tight end. But we’ll talk more about that later.) LSU came out with eight men at or on the line of scrimmage to serve as blockers. At the snap, the four blockers on the left — marked in light blue — all went left. The four blockers on the right — marked in red — all went right.
Williams came across the formation following the same speed sweep path Guice took on the game’s opening snap. Etling handed to Williams, who followed the red blockers to the BYU 4-yard line. One play later, LSU lined up in the same formation, deployed Williams as a decoy and handed to Guice, who followed the blue blockers for a touchdown.
The decision on where to give the ball appears to come pre-snap. It almost has to, because Etling snapped the ball on the Guice TD after Williams had already crossed him. That makes sense from a numerical perspective, as BYU rolled an extra defender to the outside on the touchdown to protect against another sweep.
It’s a grinder’s option. Whereas a conventional read option rests on the quarterback to react to the defense and make a play, this sort of option makes the defense react to the running backs before the ball is even snapped. It’s a beautiful, tricky setup that preys on indecision.
But it also might have a drawback.
Where were the big runs?
If there’s one thing Guice is known for, it’s his ability to break big runs. Last season, Guice broke 11 carries of 30 yards or more. The only Power 5 player with more such carries was Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
But Saturday, those runs weren’t there, and this sort of play might’ve been part of the reason why.
Here’s another look at this option concept. This time, Chark was the motion man who could’ve taken the sweep, and Guice is in the backfield again. There are three places on the field I want you to look here, broken down by color.
- Red is the play that unfolds. Guice takes the carry and follows a pulling kick from Saahdiq Charles into a crease created by a pulling wrap by Moore. Guice breaks into the secondary for a first down.
- Blue is the play that could’ve unfolded. Moreau hinge blocks on the line of scrimmage as a way of controlling BYU’s edge defender. Chark carries out his play fake, pretending to have the ball to freeze BYU’s outermost defensive back.
- Green are the BYU players who are unblocked. The Cougars’ weakside linebacker and deep safety are unaccounted for. The safety ends up tackling Guice after a 6-yard gain.
In a conventional offense, those two green defenders would be accounted for. Moreau likely would scoop-block backside to try to cut off the weakside linebacker, and Chark would have remained on the strong side of the field and ran a stalk route to try to run off the safety.
Therein lies a sacrifice of this offense. It’s an easy way to pick up mid-level gains and average 5 yards per carry. But perfectly blocked plays still leave two unblocked defenders for the running back to evade. This partially accounts for why LSU’s offense seemed so methodical Saturday.
But there’s more to see!
Again, it’s worth noting that LSU claims Canada only used about 10 percent of his playbook Saturday. Given the fact that LSU ran 54 plays with Moore and Moreau on the field at the same time, this isn’t a shock.
But there were hints of what this offense might evolve into. Like this fun little example from the first quarter.
In case you don’t immediately recognize it, this is the setup of the buzziest of buzzwords in modern college football: the run-pass option. The play ended up as a forgettable 2-yard carry from Guice. But look at Etling’s eyes while he’s still in the mesh with Guice. He’s looking at wide receiver Derrick Dillon, circled in orange.
Dillon has taken a step backwards, prepared to field a screen pass. And as you see from the orange line drawn parallel to the line of scrimmage, none of LSU’s offensive linemen have ventured downfield, despite the snap already being in the backfield.
That’s on purpose. Etling could’ve tucked this and thrown the ball. And maybe he should’ve. Dillon would’ve had blocking set up in front of him. But in all likelihood, that’s just a wrinkle in the offense that LSU either:
- Put on tape to give opponents an extra something to prepare for, OR
- Wanted to practice setting up in a live situation to use again later.
Either way, it’s a cool wrinkle to look out for. Especially given Etling’s budding rapport with Dillon.
Danny Etling’s budding rapport with Derrick Dillon
Two of the most important plays Saturday night were consecutive third-down connections from Etling to Dillon. Both moved the chains on a 13-play, 7:05 drive that led to LSU’s first touchdown. And both came on long out routes, throws that are very difficult to make.
But they seemed to be open because of the preparation Canada and Etling put in during the week.
This is a pre-snap look at the Etling and Dillon’s first connection. LSU flanked Dillon and Chark to the wide side of the field with Dillon in the slot. BYU countered with an apparent flats zone look with its nickel linebacker split out to give BYU numbers.
LSU had the right play call for the zone, sending Chark down the sideline on a streak route. The cornerback lined up across from Chark followed him down the sideline. To fill the corner’s vacancy, the nickel linebacker stepped up and occupied the flat zone around the 40-yard line.
Ten yards into his route, it appeared as if Dillon was running a streak of his own. Tasked with watching Dillon, BYU’s safety backpedaled to man up on the streak. But then Dillon broke off to the sideline. As soon as Dillon broke the route, he started looking for the ball. Then it was in his hands. First down.
Call that what you want. Chemistry. Preparation. Arm talent. Whatever it was, it was a well set-up play that prolonged LSU’s most important drive of the night.
Good LSU block of the night
I’m a big-time offensive line nerd, so let’s end our first film study of the season on a blocking award. This week’s “Good LSU Block of the Night” is split between Moore and Garrett Brumfield, who opened a massive hole for Williams in the second quarter.
Williams blasted up the middle on this play for 16 yards, LSU’s longest run of the night. And for good reason. Brumfield pulled from his perch as left guard and kicked out Takitaki, pushing open a seam. Moore crashed through that seam and dozed the Mike linebacker into the ground, leaving nothing but green pasture for Williams.
There’s no greater satisfaction as a football player than a pancake block in the open field. It’s like making a 1-on-1 tackle in the secondary, but without having the added advantage of being able to wrap up. It really is an awe-inspiring sight.
And Moore pulled one off here. On a day where LSU flattened BYU, Moore wins my highest honor by pulling off the metaphor in real time.
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